Sad Life of the Shutterbug

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

Nikon-1-V1 with SB-N5 Speedlight

I got a glimpse into the reality of amateur photography this weekend and it is worrisome. Amateurs are generally male and while they might own many expensive cameras and lenses do not make their living with this equipment. Theirs is an interest in photography which is more deeply tied to the equipment than it is to the image making it would seem.

Because digital photography is still in the process of developing there is a constant flurry of new lenses and camera bodies each year which make being an amateur photography a giddy experience. Perhaps only the owners of new video games are more absorbed in the next new thing than these amateur photographers. In days gone by they were known as shutterbugs.

I kind of like the term shutterbug because it captures in a single word the nature of the experience. Most shutterbugs are not interested in the history of photography or even know the giants of the field. They can however easily recite the names of the models of a given manufacturer and their lens selections with amazing ease and accuracy.

These are folks who visit a beautiful area of the world and rather than drinking in the beauty in a contemplative manner are constantly fidgeting with buttons and dials on their cameras as they mount and dismount lenses from their bodies in an effort to find just the right focal length and shutter and aperture setting to capture the perfect picture.

I sometimes wonder if professionals are as anal. Some perhaps are. But I would guess that as with professionals in any venue the adoration of the equipment is secondary. You find what works for you and you stick with it come “heck or high water”. When you are in the business you really cannot afford to be in constant search of a tool that will provide you with what you need. Besides the professional photographer is probably less involved with the equipment he uses that you might imagine.

Glamour and fashion photographers have assistants who schlepp the flash units, cables and tripods around. And the cameras and lenses are probably plentiful enough that there is a person to handle those as well. Only photojournalists are likely to have much in the way of first hand experience with their equipment in a fashion that a shutterbug could relate to.

The Mirrorless Camera Sinkhole

What got me to thinking about all this was the admission of a member of the Nikon 1 forum on DPReview that he had sold all of his full frame Nikon equipment and settled on three small mirrorless cameras that he totes around in a backpack.

Now let me say at the outset that buying equipment is an addiction. And like any other compulsive-obsessive activity it keeps the economy humming along with every increasing regularity. Even the most ardent Tea Party member who despises government spending can scarcely await the release of the next lens or camera body to add to his collection. He is likely to display the same sense of acquisition that drives politicians to ever increasing spending to reward his constituents and ensure his re-election. The only difference is that his purchases have no real point except self-gratification.

Many a shutterbug has a family of two or more children who need shoes, braces and clothes and his addiction to camera stuff is in direct competition with his need to keep his family budget intact. It is no wonder that the wives of shutterbugs are a harried lot.

Now the primary reason a shutterbug gives for going after the tiny mirrorless cameras, despite the fact that he owns a full frame camera and an full complement of lenses it precisely because they are tiny. He tells his wife that with a smaller and lighter equipment cache he won’t be forced to fumble around so much on their next vacation or on the weekends in the summer when they are up at the cottage.

He gets his spouse to believe that the speediness of the focus on these smaller cameras means that those countless hours of waiting while Dad sets but the perfect shot while doing a walking tour of the next city they visit are over. This new camera is going to solve all of that.

When she asks about the cost he explains that the full frame equipment he already owns is getting outdated and he is willing to trade it all in on this spiffy new mirrorless camera which will solve all his problems. She sighs and says, “OK” and off he goes with his horde of lenses and a wad of cash to purchase the next shiny new toy in a never ending stream of such objects of delight.

But what if he ends up with three such small and shiny objects in a backpack? The single full frame camera would have take up about the same amount of room and perhaps have been a bit heavier. And most certainly would have made images as good as or even better than any of these small mirrorless cameras. So why bother with the trading and haggling. Why not settle in and devote oneself to a single camera?

The problem here is that the shutterbug is simply addicted to the idea of image making and not the image making itself. He is only happy when he has a shiny new camera to make “test images” with. And he will show those around to his fellow shutterbugs who will oblige him with theirs. And they will all spend countless hours telling one another about the latest rumor of a new lens for their particular camera, all while keeping a sharp eye out for the next major development in photography that will have then scurrying off to sell much of this new stuff for yet something else more up-to-date.

The Big Lies Revisited

The first big lie that shutterbugs tell themselves about mirrorless cameras is that they want them because they are smaller. Size they argue makes a difference. If their equipment is smaller they will be able to travel lighter and that is a good thing.

But while they are unwrapping these shiny new objects they are noticing that if the manufacturer has decided to keep all the buttons and controls of the larger bodies in place on the smaller ones that there is precious little room for error for the fat fingered shutterbug in moments of haste.

And if the manufacturer has kept the design minimalist the same shutterbug bemoans a lack of control and demands that more buttons be added. And into the bargain that lenses be added with wider apertures and thus greater heft and before long the shortcomings of a smaller sensor will be noted and that too will be a sore point for our shutterbug and his pals.

The fact of the matter is that size and weight and image quality are all big lies. Shutterbugs are seldom really interested in any of these things. They have the luxury of choosing whether or not carry their cameras. And they never simply have to settle for a particular kind of image quality because there is no one save themselves that they have to please.

What is or paramount importance is that they have something at least as new and as shiny as their peers. That is the reality of being a shutterbug. Like their teenage counterparts who rush out to buy the next smartphone having no real reason to do this other than to keep up with everyone else, they wait in line overnight to be the first to acquire their shiny new phone and explore that nifty new feature that will aid them in their endless quest to lay their vapid lives out for all to see. “Checking in from the local pharmacy”. “Hi, I’m now waiting in line at the movie theatre.” “You really ought to be here at the ball park!” The list of things to notify everyone else about it endless.

And who could exist without being able to Twitter or Skype with people you know and sometimes hate? The SmartPhone groupie has much in common with the Shutterbug. Both see their fortunes rise and fall with the next release of their favorite product. And neither really cares about the intended use of the products they are buying as much as the fact that they have the latest and greatest and have managed to keep up with their peers.

The Brighter Side of Addiction

Despite our moral antithesis to drug abuse looked at in practical terms, drug addiction makes very wealthy people out of drug dealers. Pablo Escobar was able to build a lovely villa and gain the respect of politicians and campesinos alike solely on the basis of the wealth his business afforded him.

Shutterbugs help struggling camera companies keep their employees earning wages. And it is after all much better than having them re-enter the workforce at a lower wage rate. They in turn spend that money and buy homes in the better areas of town and that makes the world go ’round.

So who does this mindless and endless trading up of camera equipment actually hurt? No one. As long as their children are fed and the wife has her frivolous things to buy everyone is happy. It is kind of like that commercial where the wife is calling the insurance salesman to complain that her husband has saved so much on his insurance that he has bought himself a falcon. And she bemoans the fact that her agent has made this possible.

The agent replies that what a customer does with his savings is not his fault and asks what she wants him to do? She replies she wants him to buy her frivolous things. And thus we have the crux of the problem. None of us really wants to save money because our self esteem is bound up in what we own. If we can buy new things we feel more alive. Shopping itself is a pastime.

The bottom line though is to avoid self-delusion. We are not buying that next camera because we really need it. We are doing so because we are bored with what we have and want something new. We are like the adult versions of children who have begged for a new toy and then having gotten it lose interest in it so rapidly that it gets lost or finds its way to the bottom of our toy chest. We want a new one to replace the one we no longer desire.

Was it Gordon Gekko who said that “Greed is Good?” Maybe he was on to something there.